There are several aspects of Athanasius’ understanding of Christ, the Incarnate Son of God, which I would like to emphasise.
(i) The Logos is internal to the Being of God, for God was never without what was properly his own: he is enousious Logos, and as such belongs to his own Being to the divine side of the demarcation between the Creator and the creation, himself uncreated and unoriginated, coessential and coeternal with the Creator. In his generation as Son of the Father he is of the Being of God the Father, God of God, sharing with the Father an identity of nature through eternal generation in which he is eternally Son of the eternal Father. He is proper to the Father as the Father is proper to the Son. While the Father is the Father and not the Son and the Son is the Son and not the Father, ‘he and the Father are one in propriety and peculiarity of nature, and in identity of the of the one Godhead.’1 It is precisely as such that the eternal Son of the Father became man, taking upon himself our human being and nature and making them his own. Put the other way round, it is of the Incarnate Son, Jesus Christ, that we have to confess that He is of the same Being, and of the same nature as God the Father—as so Athanasius affirmed the Nicene homoousion expressing identity and equality of Being and of nature between the Son and the Father.2 ‘And so, since they are one, and the Godhead itself is one, the same things are said of the Son, which are said of the Father, except his being said to be the Father.’3 It was thus understandable that in consonance with the teaching of Athanasius one could say of Christ the Son, what he said of the Son and of the Father, that he is μία φύσις.4 What that means we shall consider shortly, but it does not detract from the conviction that the incarnated Son shares with us our created being and nature, on the one hand, and shares with the Father his eternal Being and Nature, on the other hand.
(ii) In the Incarnation God the Son did not simply come in man, but came as man. This is the decisive point for Athanasius’ Christology, where he clearly and explicitly identifies the ‘become flesh’ with ‘become man,’5 meaning by ‘man’ (as indeed by ‘flesh’ and ‘body’), not just a physical entity, but man in his wholeness and integrity as human being. “He did not take a body without a soul, nor without sense and intelligence,’ he says,6 at the same time, while in his early writings in speaking of ‘the Logos in man,’ as a way of describing the Incarnation, he took increasing care not to use expressions suggesting a dualism which might split the one reality of the Son, or divide between the Being of the Son and the Being of the Father, laying it down as a principle that, ‘He became man and did not just come into man’ (Ἄνθρωπος δὲ γέγονε, καὶ οὐκ εἰς ἄνθρωπον ἤλθε).7 That is to say the Incarnation (ἐνανθρώπησις) is to be understood as a real becoming—σὰρχ ἐγένετο, ἄνθρωπος ἐγένετο so that Athanasius could say that Jesus Christ is God the Son, is the eternal Logos in the Being of God.8 The significance of this can be brought out by recalling the problem of Western Medieval theology as formulated in the preposition of Peter Lombard: Deus non factus est aliquid. Behind that there would appear to lie a different doctrine of God, a God who is not free to ‘go outside of himself,’ and to become ‘what he is not,’ without ceasing to be what he eternally is. That is to say, in contrast, Athanasius doctrine of the Incarnation decidedly affected his doctrine of God, and his doctrine of God decidedly affected his doctrine of the Incarnation. We can even express this by saying that the doctrine of the coming and presence of God in the flesh, his parousia, affected his understanding of the ousia of God on the one hand. It was not for nothing that the Nicene Creed, which Athanasius championed with such persistence all through his life, immediately after it affirms the homoousion of the incarnate Son, adds ‘by whom the worlds were made.’
(iii) This understanding of Jesus Christ not as God in man but as God as man, meant that Athanasius has to understand the humanity of Jesus Christ in a profoundly vicarious manner. In the great debates of the fourth century the Arians searched through the New Testament for every possible passage in which the creatureliness, the human morality and weakness, the obedience and servility of Jesus, were stressed over against the Father. Instead of rejecting these passages or trying to escape their full implication, Athanasius pounced upon them all, and even stressed their significance, to show that it was precisely such humanity which the eternal Son assumed and appropriated from us, even going so far as to recall that he took our flesh of sin, our body of corruption subjected to slavery and divine condemnation, thus taking upon himself the curse of our sin and guilt, together with the darkness and ignorance into which we have fallen, all for our sake.9 And Athanasius piled up the various Greek prepositions, to make clear the fulness and the depth of the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ, and so to insist that in the Incarnation the Son of God ministered not only the things of God to man but ministered the things of man to God.10 That is to say, he understood the humanity of Jesus Christ as the humanity of him who is not only Apostle from God but High Priest taken from among men, and the saving work of Christ in terms of his human and divine agency—it is the human priesthood and the saving mediatorship of Jesus Christ in and through human kinship with us that Athanasius found so significant. That is certainly one of the major emphasis of Athanasius in the Contro Arianos, as well as in other writings where he expounds the doctrine of the saving humanity of Christ in terms of his obedient life and self-sanctification on our behalf, and yet it is so often completely omitted by patristic scholars, as in the recent work of A. Grillmeier, Christ in Christian Tradition. But to omit such an important ingredient in Athanasius’ doctrine of Christ is seriously to distort it and to import it into false problems for which false solutions are sought—that is nowhere more apparent that in the discussion of recent years to the relations of Athanasius to Apollinarian thought!11 In other words, those that claim that the teaching of Athanasius presupposes that the manhood of Christ was incomplete, lacking a rational soul, or that the saving work of Christ was deficient in respect of human agency, are ignoring the bulk of evidence, especially in the Contra Arianos, where the teaching of Athanasius about the humanity of Christ is expounded at length in terms of his life and death as obedient servant and faithful priest acting in our name before the Father, in our place and on our behalf, in such a way that our human being is renewed and sanctified by Jesus Christ himself.
(iv) According to Athanasius, therefore, redemption is understood to have taken place within the mediatorial life and person of the Incarnate Son. Just as the thought of the Logos as internal to the Being of God, so he thinks of our salvation as taking place in the inner relations of the Mediator (μεσίτης), and is not simply in Christ’s external relations with sinners. It was precisely because in his inhomination (ἐνανθρώπησις) the Son of God appropriated from us our soul and body and made them his own, that he could claim that ‘the salvation of soul and body were worked out in the Logos himself.’12 Hence Athanasius could say: ‘The Saviour having in very truth become man, the salvation of the whole man was brought about . . . Truly our salvation is not merely apparent, nor does it extend to the body only, but to the whole body and soul alike, has truly obtained salvation in the Word himself.’13 This included the redeeming and sanctifying of man in his human affections and in his mind in Jesus Christ for they have been renewed in him for our sakes.14 Here the patristic principle early enunciated by Irenaeus and Origen, that it is what the Incarnate Son has taken up into himself from us that is saved, plays a fundamental and essential role in Athanasius’ soteriology, although after the promulgation of Apollinarian ideas it has to be stressed more explicitly, as indeed it was especially by Gregory of Nazianzus and Cyril of Alexandria. This is the point where the teaching of the Eastern Church diverges somewhat from that of the Western Church—and incidentally helps to explain why Western scholars are so often found interpreting the theology of the Greek Fathers with an alien conceptual scheme (e.g. a dualist body/soul anthropology). In the Western Church, owing partly to the reintroduction of dualism into theology through St Augustine , and partly to the anthropocentric and forensic cast of mind deriving from Tertullian, the doctrine of redemption tends to be in terms of external relations between Christ and sinful people, and so the judicial element assumes a role of predominant significance. This is even more pronounced in Protestant theology, where the rehabilitation of Augustinian dualism, in the new dynamic outlook of the post-Reformation world, led to an increasing number of monographs on the atonement. That sort of thing did not, and could not, arise out of Greek patristic theology because in its no dualistic outlook Incarnation and Redemption are inseparably one. For Athanasius, it is everywhere apparent, the incarnational assumption of our fallen Adamic humanity from the Virgin Mary was essentially a sanctifying and redeeming event, for what Christ took up into himself, the whole man, he healed and renewed through his own holy life of obedient Sonship in the flesh, and his vicarious death and resurrection. Central to his understanding of salvation is the fact that our mind is sanctified and renewed in Christ, which of course is as far removed as anything could be from the teaching of Apollinarius.15 It is thus the full measure of the extent to which the Son of God condescended in becoming man, and man for our sakes, which is the measure of the extent of our exaltation in Christ, through union with him who is by nature Son of God, making us sons of God by grace, which Athanasius called theosis or theopoiesis.16 Yet that conception at the heart of Athanasius’ doctrine of redemption and sanctification of our humanity is found only in the body of a full-orbed account of what Western theology calls ‘atonement,’ for the acts of God towards us, on our behalf, and in us, are one and indivisible through the Son and in the Spirit.17 While that is supremely characteristic of his mature soteriology found in the Contra Arianos, even in the early De Incarnatione the conception of salvation by sanctifying exaltation and theosis through the Incarnation of the Word or Son of God is structured together with conceptions of atoning expiation, priestly propitiation, and substitutionary sacrifice and victory over the forces of evil which together constitutes what he means by redemption.18 Yet all is understood as having taken place within the incarnate life of the Mediator, in whom and in whose saving work on our behalf we are given to participate in the Spirit who is regarded as co-active with the Son in all acts of redemption and sanctification as well as in all acts of creation.
1. Contra Arianos 3.4
4. Contra Arianos 3.4
11. For what Athanasius understood by the rational soul, see Contra Gentes 13, 18, 30-35, 38, 43-7; Contra Arianos 2.35; De decretis 9, 12f,; Ad Marcellinum 27; Festal Letter 4, all of which is consistent with the teaching of Contra Apollinarium.
13. Ad Epictetum 7